My fiancee and I are celebrating our two year anniversary in a few weeks, and as an early anniversary present, I got her The Mark of Zorro (1940). She’s a big Zorro fan, really likes the 1940 film, and has a bit of a crush on Tyrone Power. I, being a flawed film-buff, had never seen the movie despite being an idolizer of Basil Rathbone, one of the film’s stars. I love a good swashbuckler, though, and this picture certainly doesn’t disappoint. How could any movie when it contains a charming and believable leading man, a fun sense of humor, and one of the best sword fights in cinema history? Answer: it’s really difficult.
The Mark of Zorro is a remake of the 1920 smash hit of the same name starring the legendary Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Both versions are based on the serialized 1919 story The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley, who wrote four Zorro novels and many short stories. (Coincidentally, McCulley was raised in the same town in Illinois as my stepfather, which is not far from where I live now.) The story tells of young, aristocrat Don Diego Vega (Tyrone Power) who disguises himself as the masked vigilante Zorro in order to overthrow a corrupt governor, Don Luis Quintero (played by J. Edward Bromberg), who has taken over Diego’s town of birth in early 19th century, Spanish ruled California. Diego wishes to reinstate his father as the man in charge. In Diego’s way are Quintero’s legion of troops and the cold and bloodthirsty Captain Esteban Pasquale (played by Basil Rathbone).
One of the best things going for the picture is Tyrone Power. His Diego isn’t just handsome and strong. He’s charismatic, funny, smart, cunny, strategic, athletic, brave, and sophisticated without coming off as snobby…well…kind of. Part of the credit for the character of Zorro in this production has to go to the writers. They solve a problem that would invariably come up if such a vigilante were to pop up in real life. All suspicion is diverted from Diego, who would undoubtedly have become the lead suspect in the Zorro investigation, by making Power’s character the total opposite of the heroic Zorro. Diego puts on a front of being cowardly, lazy, self-centered, and just generally apathetic to the goings-on in the town. This behavior disappoints his parents and friends, who have no idea of what Diego has been up to in his spare time. Other characters in fiction have used similar ruses. Among the most notable is Batman – who, when out in public as his secret identity Bruce Wayne, acts in a similar manner as Power’s Diego. (This is appropriate considering Batman, both in the realm of his fictional universe and in real life, was inspired by Zorro.) It’s an excellent, logical touch to the character, and Power plays it convincingly. That’s not to say we should make light of the more physical sides of Zorro. Diego is just as effective with a blade as he is with his mind.
Rathbone, a distinguished fencer in his own right, said, “Tyrone Power could fence Errol Flynn into a box.” I’m no Power expert, but whether he was a great fencer or not, he at least looks like he trained his butt off to look great in his fencing scenes. The crown jewel of these fighting sequences is the bout between Power and Rathbone near the film’s conclusion. It’s a duel that’s been built-up the entire film. We know of Esteban’s prowess and love of the blade, he’s seen practicing his skills with a knife and a piece of fruit at dinner for Christ’s sake. We know the Captain is ruthless, violent, and clever (far more so than Quintero could ever be). Worst of all, he doesn’t take too kindly to Diego or his alter ego Zorro. So, when the two finally cross blades, I was more than ready for it.
The fight isn’t big and grandiose but enclosed and personal. It takes place within one room and is designed to look more like an actual sword fight than the over-the-top scenes with duelers fighting on top of furniture and jumping from balconies that you might see in other swashbucklers. This was done intentionally by master fencing choreographer, Fred Cavens. Some may leave wishing for an epically proportioned showdown, but in today’s age of constant, never letup, large scale action films (which I do love), this intimate face-off was refreshing.
I started fencing about four months ago. From a novice’s view, Power and Rathbone both know what they’re doing. Rathbone in particular has excellent footwork. Power does most of the duel himself, with only a few shots showing the back of the head of Cavens’s son as he fills in for Power. I would’ve liked the fight to go on a bit longer, but you can clearly see why it’s ranked as one of the best sword fights in all of film.
This is one of the few actual duels in the movie. Zorro brandishes a sword throughout, but he rarely gets a chance to use it against someone else with the same weapon. While I would’ve liked one or two more good duels, there is still plenty of sword action. The light tone of the movie also helps make the watching experience entertaining till the end.
There’s a great sense of fun and comedy amongst the drama. The Mark of Zorro never takes itself too seriously, always finding time for a nice sight gag amongst the fighting or a funny line during a serious bit of dialogue. A good piece of comedy that springs to mind is when Lolita (played by Linda Darnell) comes to visit the home of Diego’s parents. She has recently become engaged to Diego, but his father doesn’t approve due to her being the niece of the dastardly Quintero. He asks her if she wants to marry Diego. “Yes,” she replies. “Why?” he asks in return. When she explains she loves him, Diego’s father throws his arms up in the air, baffled as to why anyone would feel that way about his layabout, no good son. Other bits of business, like a humorous moment between a disguised Diego (he’s dressed as a friar) and Lolita where he keeps leaning forward so she doesn’t see his face, are mixed with the action to firmly place this film in the fun adventure category.
If I am to give any marks against this fine film, it is in regards to the lack of Zorro. When Zorro shows up for the first time, we stick with him for a while. I didn’t use a stopwatch, but it easily could’ve been 20 or more minutes. The problem is after this part of the movie, Diego only dons the costume one more time and that is only to reveal his duel identity to Lolita. The climatic fights with Esteban and later with a whole assortment of Quintero’s men are done with Diego in his civilian garb. I wanted to and was expecting to see more of the rob from the rich and give to the poor (he does that in this movie), chivalrous, masked vigilante persona. Yes, it’s still the same man performing the actions. Yes, near the film’s end, we do see Diego act more like Zorro when out of costume, but it just feels weird to have Zorro on screen so little when his name is in the title of the movie.
Thankfully, Power is interesting enough in his Diego persona and the rest of the film is filled with enough laughs and action that Diego not having the mask on all that much isn’t a big deal. The sheer fun of the movie overrides any problems the film has, leaving you with a topnotch swashbuckler that any classic movie fan is sure to enjoy.